Inmates as firefighters? Why it can never work

There's a reason why we must hold our service accountable to a high standard of excellence and integrity

Editor’s Note:

Editor's note: Officials in southeast Georgia are considering a money-saving program that would put inmates in fire stations. No way, says Chief Adam K. Thiel.

This is one of those stories that made me check the date when I first saw it, wondering if it was an April Fool's Day joke?

But of course, it's October...

I've had the opportunity, on a few occasions, to see inmate firefighters work (supervised, of course) at wildland fires.

Without question they: 1) are fully capable of doing that demanding job under extreme conditions; and 2) face many of the same risks as any other firefighters.

I'm also a big fan of our local sheriff's inmate work crews, who (again under law enforcement supervision) perform a range of dirty jobs at an extremely low cost, such as roadway trash pickup, digging out snow-covered fire hydrants, landscaping, painting, etc.

That's not the same, however, as performing the daily response functions of a local fire department.

I'm often asked why fire and EMS departments, career and volunteer, often have such extensive processes for selecting their members.

My answer is simple: we're the only government agency that people actually invite into their homes, with no questions asked, anytime day or night.

That's a sacred trust, and the fundamental reason we must hold our service accountable to a high standard of excellence and integrity.

I can easily recall the times when a parent actually met us in their front yard as we arrived onscene, and without a moment's hesitation handed us their child; without any words, and with every expectation that we would make things better.

Could they (would they) do that with an inmate, even a low-risk inmate?

I find it hard to believe the citizens of any local jurisdiction would allow a proposal like this to advance very far, but I guess we'll see what happens...

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel — FireRescue1's editorial advisor — is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

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